Spoiler Alert: You Can’t Build a Healthy Community without Virtue

For all of the talk of unity that we hear in political stump speeches, we don’t really see much unity in practice. However, fundamental to the achievement of some type of unity is a shared vision, and it is evident that America is a country of divided vision.

Sebastian Junger wrote in his recent work Tribe, “The beauty and the tragedy of the modern world is that it eliminates many situations that require people to demonstrate a commitment to the collective good.”[1] This is beautiful because we live in a modern society where a great deal of danger has been mollified, but it is tragic because this connection to a sense of the greater, collective good has been exactly what brought societies together for millennia.

Junger rightly points out that people are brought together when they can unite around some type of higher cause. It is a shame that we have lost a great deal of that community spirit. However, it is also important to realize that on the societal level, this can only happen when there is agreement on what the collective good actually is. In Why Liberalism Failed, Patrick J. Deneen suggested that the problem can only be solved by a return to virtue. He wrote, “These maladies include the corrosive social and civic effects of self-interest—a disease that arises from the cure of overcoming the ancient reliance upon virtue.”[2] Virtue can indeed point toward our shared, higher, collective good.

Virtue is difficult to find agreement on though. If you take the American political spectrum right now, you have one side saying that capitalism is good, and you have one side saying that capitalism needs to be abolished or at least incredibly socialized. On one side you have people saying that abortion stopping would be good, and the other side is saying that abortions themselves are good. Junger is exactly right that in order to build unity, it is important for people to come together around the common good, but the question for America right now is how we come to understand that common good. It is the foundational question that must be addressed prior to any type of unity will develop.

I’m going to start with a simple suggestion to develop this foundational virtue. As a Christian, I do not find it to be perfect, but I think that if we start from these principles, we will start to develop the bedrock of virtue that is necessary for a community to define the collective good and start aiming towards desirable ends.

C. S. Lewis proposed the existence of the Tao in The Abolition of Man. By that, he meant, “This conception in all its forms, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, Christian, and Oriental alike, I shall henceforth refer to for brevity simply as ‘the Tao’ … It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are.”[3] This is kind of a least common denominator of virtue. It takes a variety of schools of thought and puts them side-by-side. Lewis provides an appendix showing the moral similarities between these different worldviews. The parts that come together is what he calls the Tao. Basically, it serves as the fundamental building blocks of human morality regardless of time and place. They are the things that people have actually agreed upon, that shared vision we are looking for to build towards unity.

If you flip to the appendix and look at some of the examples, you see shared prohibitions against murder, cruelty, slander, and lying among other things. They are the types of things that most of us believe are wrong all the time. On the other side, there are positive encouragements as well that relate to honoring elders, responsible child rearing, honesty, and justice.

Does this collection of virtues solve all of our problems? Absolutely not. I don’t know that we can just rely on some kind of reduction to only the basics. Our society is much more complex than that. However, if we do not start with fundamental principles, we can never build more complex structures. You don’t start a building without laying the foundation.

Rather than cave in to moral subjectivity and relativism, let’s boldly strive towards taking a stand for the existence of objective truth and reality. Only when we accept the reality of virtue can we start building healthy communities.

[1] Sebastian Junger, Tribe (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016), 59, Kindle Edition.

[2] Patrick J. Deneen, Why Liberalism Failed (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018), 29, Kindle Edition.

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man (New York: HarperCollins, 2009), 18, Kindle Edition.

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